John Kuglin, who retired in 2005 after a long career as a reporter and editor in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington and Montana, recently told the Montana Standard in Butte that he was thinking of writing a book called “When Journalism Was Fun.”
He sounds like the right person for the job, having recently published “Montana’s Dimple Knees Sex Scandal: 1960s Prostitution, Payoffs & Politicians,” published by The History Press.
“Dimple Knees” was the nickname of a crooked lawyer and politician in Butte whose longtime girlfriend happened to run two brothels in the Mining City. And in 1968, Kuglin, who now lives in Helena, was sent by his editor at the Great Falls Tribune to interview the madam, who was ready to talk about rampant corruption in Butte.
Kuglin ended up writing an eight-part series for the Tribune, taking a close look at Butte’s illegal gambling, after-hours boozing and prostitution, all of which were tolerated by local police and public officials in exchange for regular cash payoffs.
The Butte madam, Beverly Snodgrass, told Kuglin that when she griped about being pressured to make ever higher payoffs, she was severely beaten and one of her brothels was damaged by a dynamite explosion.
Some of Kuglin’s material was provided by private investigator W.F. Sanders, who was hired by Snodgrass and produced what Kuglin called the “chilling yet salacious ‘Snodgrass Report,'” detailing the widespread corruption and extortion in Butte. But Kuglin did a lot of his own old-fashioned legwork.
After interviewing Snodgrass in the home of a Catholic priest, he writes, “I returned several times to the old mining camp, once checking in for almost a week at a motel in Uptown Butte to interview anti-vice crusaders, cops, politicians and some of Bev’s relatives. I also bar-hopped in Uptown Butte so I could write about the flagrant illegal gambling and liquor law violations.”
When journalism was fun, in other words. It reminds me of my old city editor at the Montana Standard, where I began my career in that paper’s Anaconda Bureau. He once told me, on a slow day, that I should slide over to Red’s, the bar closest to the bureau, for the rest of the afternoon.
“You might hear something worth writing about,” he said. “If not, well, at least you were in a bar for the afternoon.”
And I’m not sure this would comport with everyone’s idea of fun, but Kuglin also had the distinction of being warned by the governor, Tim Babcock, that he was in mortal danger. This was on third day of his newspaper series, and Kuglin, then covering the statehouse for the Tribune, was out celebrating with friends In Helena.
The headline on that morning’s installment of the series was “Butte Madam Describes Love Affair With Politician, ‘Dimple Knees.'” At 8 p.m., Kuglin was summoned to the governor’s office in the Capitol. When he got there, Kuglin writes, “Babcock rose from behind his desk. There was no color in his face. ‘They’re coming over from Butte to kill you. … That’s all I can tell you. Good luck!'”
Kuglin says the identity of Dimple Knees, also known as “Pretty Legs,” was common knowledge in Butte, but he was not named in the series, as recommended by lawyers in the employ of the Tribune’s corporate owners. Kuglin does finally identify the man in print, but not until nearly the end of his book, and then obliquely and quite cleverly.
What makes this book especially good is that Kuglin writes about much more than this one scandal. He gives a quick, concise history of Butte, then follows up with a chapter on local perspectives on the prevalence of vice, another on Butte reformers and one on famous Butte boosters, including Evel Knievel.
He also writes about the fallout of his series, how it influenced political races and how it prompted editors of Montana’s Lee newspapers — the Tribune was the only major daily not owned by Lee — to assign their own reporters to hunt out vice and corruption. The Missoulian even sent two reporters to Great Falls, hoping they could find some juicy material in the Tribune’s back yard. (Basically, they didn’t.)
Kuglin expands the scope of his book still further by writing about the demise of the famous cathouses in Wallace, Idaho, which he covered for the AP while stationed in Spokane. Each chapter, incidentally, opens with a quote, none better than the one that opens this chapter, from Wallace brothel owner Dolores Arnold: “Everyone has to have sex. None of us got here by looking at each other.”
I can’t end without a confession: Like so many people in those distant days, I not only did not object to certain illegal activities on the part of bar owners, I eagerly benefited from them.
When I was an editor in Butte, where I transferred after two years in the Anaconda Bureau, my colleagues and I frequented three or four after-hours joints in Uptown Butte, where you could drink until 3 or 4 in the morning for a slight surcharge. In our defense, we got off work at midnight, sometimes closer to 1 a.m., and it would have been inhuman to expect us to confine our revelry within the strict limits of the law.
Once, while having dinner in a bar with my editor and city editor, we were accosted by the woman who owned the bar with her husband. She was indignant and very angry, telling us that she’d been raided a couple of nights earlier.
“I’ve been paying those bums off for 30 years!” she said. “Thirty years! But do I get a call before the raid? Hell, no!”
We all laughed, and I don’t think it occurred to any of us that we ought to write a story. Maybe Kuglin wouldn’t have written a story either, if it was only about after-hours drinking and a little hush money.
But if a madam had called, itching to spill the beans on sex, booze, extortion and a mug named Dimple Knees? Kuglin, you lucky dog.